by Henry Gregson, BU English Major

There are many unheard of adventures inspired by famous explorers of previous eras such as Ronald Amundsen (leader of the Antarctic expedition) or James Cook (British Naval captain). In Dr. Eric Hobson’s presentation at the Belmont Humanities Symposium on September 21st, he illuminated one of these overshadowed yet groundbreaking events in his discussion about the Brazilian Matto Grosso expedition. He laid out the historical context and setting of the late 1920s and early 1930s then presented the story chronologically. The room drew closer to Hobson as if he were pacing in front of a campfire about to relay a horrific tale instead of casually engaging with students and conveying the importance of this pioneering event.

The idea of the Matto Grosso expedition was spearheaded by wealthy descendent to E.R. Johnson (co-founder of the Victor Talking Machine Co.), E.R. Fenimore Johnson. The idea was that the era of groundbreaking explorations into unknown territory and wild adventures in the jungle were coming to an end, but this area of Matto Grasso was considered one of the last unexplored frontiers with native languages and cultures. Johnson was a filmmaker in his spare time and he told newspapers that the expedition had a far more scientific intention than to just explore. The party members wanted to create the first film with synchronized sound as well as film the infamous adventurer Sasha Seimal spearing a jaguar.

matto grosso

Hobson related the wild misadventures of the inexperienced crew and how they poorly navigated through the jungle and crafted a make-shift coliseum to film their long anticipated jaguar fight, only to realize their film equipment wasn’t fast enough to capture the jaguar’s speed. Some of their other equipment got wet on the journey and molded, so the filmmakers eventually abandoned their secondary idea of an action-adventure, Hollywood movie.

What they did produce was the first “talkie”, on-site documentary film – Matto Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1933). Unfortunately for the crew and Johnson, they returned from their wild expedition soon after the stock market crashed and the entertainment industry was very selective about which films to publish. While the film’s budget was not even close to recouped, Johnson and the crew accomplished many ‘firsts’ in history.

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During the making of the documentary, the crew helped the first ever Brazilian general to fly. The film itself was the first with synchronized sound and revolutionized the way audio was reproduced in a film. Furthermore, the crew showed that even naïve “explorers” could make history. Hobson’s casual, campfire-style presentation of the historical event made it far more appealing to a student audience and I would look forward to hearing what else Dr. Hobson knows about these unsung adventurers.